In 2001, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb filmed his first commercial for Campbell’s Chunky Soup. On that shoot, he brought along a guest: his mother, Wilma “Char” McNabb. Much like she’d watch Donovan’s games from the stands, Char was planning to cheer her son on as he acted in the commercial. But when she saw an actress come out and begin delivering lines as Donovan’s mother, she thought to herself, “I can do what she’s doing.”
From there, she spoke to a producer at the ad agency behind the spot and asked why the real moms of players weren’t being used. She was told that, with limited time constraints, it was simply easier to use a seasoned actress, as they’d need less takes and preparation. Still, Char insisted she could do it, and a year later, she got her shot. Little did she know that she’d continue to do the commercials for the next six years and find a good deal of her own celebrity in the process.
Char filmed her final commercial in 2008, but she still gets recognized as “Mama McNabb” to this day. That isn’t too surprising, as the commercials were probably Campbell’s most memorable ad campaign ever, and while other NFL moms have appeared since, she is still the one most associated with it.
Given that another Mother’s Day is upon us, I decided to catch up with Char and ask her about filming these spots, sharing the spotlight with her son and serving up some motherly love, one chunky spoonful of soup at a time.
Before we get to Campbell’s, can you tell me what Donovan was like growing up?
Donovan always had this nervous energy growing up. His older brother, Sean, was an athlete as well and, of course, the younger sibling looks up to the older one. His brother played football and basketball, and Donovan was four years younger, so he’d be the ball boy for Sean’s team.
When it was time for Donovan to go high school, we chose for him to go to Mount Carmel school in Chicago, which had a strong football team. They made Donovan the quarterback, but like his brother, he wanted to play basketball, too.
We always kept them in sports because it kept them out of trouble. Along with football and basketball, he played baseball, he ran track and he did volleyball. When you have your kids in that many sports, you’re busy all the time. Between my husband and I, we had our hands full. Donovan, of course, really excelled.
What kinds of foods did Donovan like growing up?
Well, Chicago has the best pizza, so he loves Chicago pizza. His favorite food though is red beans and rice, as well as macaroni and cheese. He loves those. Actually, just before the pandemic, he did this cooking show where he had to make the macaroni and cheese. He attempted to make it, anyway. That’s all I can say.
And did he eat Campbell’s soup?
Oh yeah. Campbell’s soup was the thing. Then, of course, after we did the commercials, that’s all we ate! Even today, that’s what we eat!
How did you end up in the Campbell’s Chunky Soup commercials?
I was really shocked to get the part because, the first year Donovan was in the commercial, he was with an actress. I got to go with him while he was filming, and I asked the marketing people, “Why don’t you use real moms?”
When Donovan caught me talking to them, he was embarrassed! He was like, “Mom, please, why are you doing this?” And I was like, “I’m just asking a question!” He don’t like the things that I do sometimes, but what young man does?
You must have made an impression on them, though.
They must have thought about it, yeah, because when he got the call to do the commercial again the next year, his marketing agent called me and asked, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “No, why?” And he told me, “Guess what, Campbell’s is going to use the real moms.” And I was real excited about it!
That first year, they used a few of us. It was me, Gladys Bettis and Brian Urlacher’s mom. The first one was shot in Upstate New York. They asked me if there was anyone that I wanted to do my hair, and there were the makeup people and wardrobe. Wardrobe would let you pick what you wanted, then the director would come and see if he liked it. The shoot went well, and it didn’t take as long as they expected. It really legitimized it too, having the real moms there.
From then on, Donovan and I did the campaign for six years — their longest running campaign.
Were you nervous during that first commercial?
Oh yeah. We were in this junkyard and, if you look at me in that commercial, I have the same look that I had in the draft when Donovan was picked. I was like a deer in headlights. Every year it got a little easier, though.
How many commercials did you end up doing?
About six — that was it. We did one commercial a year.
Usually it went very well, but sometimes it would be tiring to do so many takes and I’d get weary. Me and the director probably weren’t the best of friends on those days, but we managed to get it done. Funny thing is, on set, Donovan kept calling me “Rookie.” He’d say “Come on, Rookie” and he’d pat me on the back when it was time to do the next take and I’d say, “Alright” and get ready.
Were there any that were especially memorable?
Well, Donovan’s dad got to be in one commercial too. He and I were in the stands, and it was a good experience for him. He told everybody about it afterwards — it was the talk of the town for him. He really cherishes that memory.
There was also one where I was with a few other players and I was the only mom. I loved working with them because they all called me “mom” — I loved that. “Mama McNabb,” is still my affectionate name. Even today, if I see any former NFL players, they all call me “Mama McNabb.”
My favorite commercial, though, had to be the one where they poured Gatorade all over me during the shoot. They didn’t tell me when, though. I think they told me they were going to do it after lunch or something, but they didn’t. They did it earlier, and they surprised me!
They were all a little scared to do it, but they did what they had to do. It might not have been as cold as it would normally be and I don’t know that it was completely full, but it still surprised me. It got all over me and that was it for me — good thing it was only one take. It was definitely fun, though.
What was it like for you in public when these commercials were on the air?
These commercials were big! They told me that the sales jumped up like 40 percent or something like that. I got to be noticed, too. People would be like, “Aren’t you that Chunky Soup mom?” And I’d say that I was.
We never had a bad time with that, though. Even when the Eagles lost, it was all good. Philadelphia fans can be passionate — that’s the word I’ll use, passionate — and sometimes, they can be rough on the players, but they never did that with the parents. They were always respectful.
What was it like for you to be parodied on Saturday Night Live?
Well, they did that the weekend of the Super Bowl, so I didn’t know anything about it until later when Donovan’s marketing people called me. They told me, “You know, that’s a big deal, to be done on Saturday Night Live. I saw it later on, and it was Kenan Thompson doing me. He wore this little white fur coat, and he was mocking me, I suppose. It was too funny!
What was it like to share the limelight with your son?
He’s really the famous one. We’ve had many, many incidents in his career. You have good times and bad times. As a parent, when they hurt, you hurt, and when they lose a game, you lose too. The good outweighed the bad though, and this campaign was definitely a lot of fun.
When you filmed your last one in 2008, did you know it would be your last?
No, I didn’t, but I did it for six years, that was a good run. They were very good to us, and to this day, whenever they bring the campaign back, they still only use the real moms, which I’m very proud of.